"Louise Rick, Louise Rick!"
He pronounced her name "Lois Wreck."
The evening sun cast a deep golden glow over the ocean that stretched out before her, deep blue as far as the eye could see. She'd been sitting on the beach all day-and it had been an insanely hot one-and was still sitting there, unable to muster the enthusiasm to move.
She ignored him. She felt heavy, slow, and sluggish from the emptiness inside her.
"Emergency!" he yelled. "It's about your family. Please come to the phone!"
He approached where she was sitting at the water's edge, leaving a trail of footprints behind him in the wet sand. He was wheezing, out of breath. As his words finally sank in, she turned and stared at him in alarm. "What is it? What's going on?"
He held his hand out to help her up off the small towel she'd brought along from the hotel room.
"Please come," he repeated, his voice shrill now. He turned and began running back across the street to the hotel, darting past the food stands that had been set up between the parked cars. The scooters that zipped down the street in front of the hotel day and night were making their usual racket, but Louise didn't hear them as she followed the man through a small opening in the palm trees.
Thailand hadn't been her choice, but the family had made a deal when she'd taken six months' leave from the police department. Louise was between jobs; she'd just left the Missing Persons Department to take on a new role as the head of the Homicide Department. But before beginning her new job, she'd wanted to spend some time traveling, and the family had come to an agreement that each of the four members would be allowed to pick out one place they wanted to see. They'd started in Mexico, which her foster son, Jonas, had chosen. After exploring Mayan ruins, they had journeyed on to South America, Africa, and India. They'd been on the road for four months so far. A small double family: Louise and Jonas, her partner, Eik, and his daughter, Stephanie. All that was in the past, though. Now she was still in Thailand, but alone.
In the reception area, the man led Louise to a desk behind the counter, where the telephone was waiting for her. Her own phone was in her room. Shut off.
"International call," he said, pointing at the receiver.
Louise froze. Lately, she'd been doing everything she could to shut out reality and now this call was about to confront her with it.
She sank down on the chair by the table, and the man put the receiver into her hand. She raised it to her ear and spoke in a hush.
"It's Mikkel." She barely recognized her father's voice. "He tried to commit suicide. He's in the hospital in Roskilde; we're here with him."
He paused for a moment and took a deep, trembling breath. "They don't know if he'll survive. I think you should come home."
Mikkel. Her brother was two and a half years younger than her. They were close, though not as close as they would have been if Louise had stayed in Mid Sealand instead of running off to Copenhagen after her boyfriend Klaus had died. But Louise had been desperate to get away at the time-KlausÕs death had traumatized her so much that she hadnÕt even been able to attend his funeral. Still, she and Mikkel kept in close touch, and she was godmother to both of his children. ÒThe Terrorists,Ó as her mother had called her grandchildren when they were toddlers. Now they were four and six, and not quite as wild. At least Kirstine wasnÕt. Malte was still a handful, but Louise had a soft spot for her nephew, even though a houseful of screaming kids wasnÕt exactly her cup of tea.
She had trouble letting go of the receiver once they'd said goodbye. Her Mikkel, who had gone to Klaus's funeral and placed a red rose on his coffin for her. The brother whose world had collapsed when his wife left him with two small children and a house in Osted, with bills he couldn't pay. He'd taken on extra work as a deliveryman and had driven all over the country, in the little time he had left over from his job selling spare parts for Volvo in Roskilde.
That had gone on for almost a year, until Trine had finally come back to him. And since then he'd seemed genuinely happy. Louise had often thought that Trine's year away might actually have been good for them because they now seemed closer than ever. There was an air of peace about them, a new sense of comfortableness in their relationship. Louise hadn't cared much for her sister-in-law while she had been away from her family. But that was ancient history now; as long as her brother was happy, so was Louise.
She'd always thought she would do anything for her little brother. Climb any mountain, walk any desert, though he would have been irritated to hear her say that. He was a head taller than her and didn't look at all like someone who needed his big sister to take care of him. Still, she'd vowed that she'd always be there for him, no matter what.
Louise slept for most of the flight home. After Eik, Jonas, and Stephanie had left, a local Thai pharmacist had begun supplying her with sleeping pills. Normally they required a prescription, but she had smooth-talked her way out of needing to see a doctor. The pills had gotten her through the nights alone.
Because it was an emergency, she was allowed to leave the small, sleazy tourist hotel without paying for the entire week, which they could have insisted on. There wasn't much good to say about the room, and nothing good at all to say about the bed or the tiny shower stall, which specialized in icy water at a trickle. On the other hand, she had nothing but praise for the man at the reception desk, who turned out to be the owner-he told her so on the way to the airport. He had offered her a lift, and he'd also been the one who'd figured out the fastest way for her to get back to Denmark.
Which turned out to be three connecting flights, though with short layovers between them. She spent the trip in a fog of sleep, anxiety, sorrow, and a sense of unreality. Like a bad dream that had somehow invaded real life, making her head spin and her joints feel stiff. On top of that was the fact that she hadn't managed to eat since her father's call, and she hadn't drunk much, either. In fact, she hadn't taken in much at all during the past few weeks after saying goodbye to the others. Her body had come to a standstill; it felt like torture when she tried to force something down. She was off her feed, as her father would have put it, though he was usually referring to birds.
Her suitcase was one of the first ones to pop out, thanks to the red tag the hotel owner had convinced the woman at the airport to fasten onto the handle in order to expedite its voyage through the airports. Louise had lost all sense of time. She glanced at her phone and saw that it was nearly seven-thirty in the evening.
She spotted her father immediately after she passed through customs. He was standing off to the left in the arrivals hall. The second he saw her, he engulfed her in a huge hug, which roadblocked the other passengers trying to drag their suitcases through the gate.
He held her so tightly that Louise couldn't breathe enough to even ask about her brother. Or maybe she just didn't dare. More than a day had gone by since his call. The first twenty-four hours were crucial; she knew that from experience. They were the hours that separated life from death. When her father finally let go of her, she took a step back and quickly studied his face.
"They say he'll survive," he whispered with relief, though his voice was husky. "The doctors don't think he suffered any permanent damage, but it was close. If your mother hadn't gone over to visit when she did, Mikkel would be dead. He was unconscious when she found him."
The anxiety drained out of her body, leaving her giddy and light, almost as if she were floating. "Can we drive over to the hospital now?"
He shook his head. "They told us he needs to rest this evening. He's not well, he's not himself, but you can visit him tomorrow."
Her father grabbed her suitcase and led her to the exit. Still in a daze, she barely registered the hum of voices and the low sun on her face as they walked out. The specter of an impending disaster had overwhelmed her, put her body on high alert. And now it was slowly loosening its grip. At last she could breathe. They stashed her suitcase in the trunk, and he backed the car out of the parking space.
When they reached the freeway, he asked about the others. Specifically about Jonas. Louise answered vaguely. She told him everything was fine, that they all said hello. She assured him that Eik and the kids understood she had no choice. She'd needed to come home.
"You can fly back and join up with them again," he said, as if apologizing for interrupting her vacation now that her brother wasn't about to die after all.
The freeway signs flew by. Though she'd been gone a long time, the way home was still familiar to her and she didn't pay much attention. She thought about Mikkel. How could her brother have even considered committing suicide? He knew how devastated she had felt during all the years she'd believed, falsely, that her boyfriend Klaus had killed himself. She was the one who had found him hanging above the stairway in the house they'd just moved into.
After several minutes of silence, she asked, "What happened? How did he do it?"
Her father stared straight ahead at the cars in front of them as the silence lengthened. After what felt like forever, he said, "Car exhaust. Mikkel closed the garage door and started the car. We were taking care of the kids; they'd stayed the night. But your mother wanted to pick something up at the house the next morning before taking them back, and she heard the car idling out there."
"Car exhaust!" Louise knew that nowadays people seldom did it that way. Only the very poor or the very rich, the pathologists liked to say. It didn't really work with new cars that were equipped with catalytic converters. So it was usually someone with either an older car or an antique one.
She felt her father's eyes on her. "He must've been out there a long time." Her throat clogged up; if the garage was sealed tight enough, in time he would have easily died of carbon monoxide poisoning. "What about Trine? Didn't she hear him go out?"
"Your brother was alone."
Her father's voice was still raspy. Louise studied him, but then she let it go. She was too tired, couldn't handle it right now. She turned on the radio, leaned her head back, and listened to the news.
"Police have identified the remains of a body found last week on Bornholm. Susan Dahlgaard, a fourteen-year-old girl who disappeared more than two decades ago during a field trip with her class from Osted School in Mid Sealand, was found in a cave in Echo Valley, a popular site for visitors on the island. Identification was made difficult by the condition of the body, and at this moment, the cause of death is undetermined."
Louise straightened up in her seat. This was one of the cases the Missing Persons Department had been involved in back when she was working there. Her former colleague Olle had a picture of Susan Dahlgaard on the wall behind his desk, along with photos of several other people from cold cases the media often returned to, keeping their memories alive. Back when the young schoolgirl had disappeared, there had been an exhaustive search. Bornholm police had requested the assistance of the Mobile Crime Unit, and the best canine trackers in the country had been called in to aid the local dog patrols. Thirty men with highly trained dogs had combed the entire area around the Svaneke Hostel, where the girl's class had been staying. The next week, a new team had been sent over to relieve them, and the search had gone on this way for several weeks before being abandoned. With no evidence having been turned up by the dog teams, the police theorized that she'd been abducted and taken off the island. The girl's photo had been shown on newscasts and posters around the country. The department called a search like this "the whole package," and it included reviewing all pertinent international records.
The three friends Susan had shared a room with had last seen her at the harbor in Svaneke, where they'd split up. The four girls had left the hostel while they were supposed to be asleep in their rooms, sharing two bikes between them. During questioning, the girls stated that they had biked down to the harbor, where Susan had agreed to meet up with some Bornholm boys they'd met earlier. The other girls left her in front of the convenience store at the harbor and never saw her again. The boys confirmed meeting the girls there, but they claimed Susan hadn't been with them later in the evening. There'd been no further traces of the fourteen-year-old.
Louise had been in high school in Roskilde when Susan disappeared. That had been several years before she applied for police school, but even back then the case had intrigued her because Osted was close to Hvals¿, where she had gone to elementary school. Her class had also taken the traditional weeklong field trip to Bornholm, and her memories of it had been fresh. The day before they left, she had broken her collarbone playing soccer. She still went on the trip even though her shoulder and left arm had been bandaged tightly, and her friends had to help dress her and tie her shoes. At the same time, it had been a great excuse to duck out of the long bike tours of the island, which suited her just fine.
Now Louise closed her eyes and recalled the trip. How hard the Bornholm ferry had rocked, causing many of her classmates to throw up. How they had bought a smoked herring packed in newspaper at the smokehouse. And a gigantic ice cream cone at the Gudhjem harbor . . .